Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki blesses the new church at St. Charles Hartland on April 6. (Photo by Andy Gilicinski)

There’s a story that Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki has shared several times in homilies and other public addresses over the last 14 years. It concerns what he has called “one of the great rites of passage” of childhood — walking home alone from school.

On the first day of first grade, as the story goes, Archbishop Listecki and his best friend insisted on doing as the big kids do and braving the six-block walk home from school all by themselves. Their mothers consented — but years later, the boys found out that they had followed them secretly, ducking behind parked cars and around corners, watching out to ensure they were safe.

“They were watching every step, making sure that our journey was protected and we were safe,” he said at a 2019 Mass celebrating Catholic Schools Week. “You know what that tells me about us, here (in the Church)? There’s someone always watching us. There’s someone always who cares about us.”

For the past 14 years, for the Catholic Church in Milwaukee, that person has been Archbishop Listecki.

He has acted, said Dr. Kathleen Cepelka, in the same way his mother did all those years ago, watching as a faithful shepherd would over his flock.

In her toast during a March 10 luncheon at Saint Francis de Sales Seminary that marked the archbishop’s 75th birthday, the former superintendent of Catholic schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee paid tribute to her boss and collaborator by recalling that famous story from his childhood.

“Archbishop, for 14 years we’ve known, even when we didn’t see you, that you were always in and around our corners, that you always had our backs, that you would not and did not ever let us down,” said Dr. Cepelka. “As God so loved the world, so you have loved us — and we, ever so gratefully, will always love you.”

As Archbishop Listecki awaits the Holy Father’s decision regarding his replacement as “good shepherd” here in Milwaukee, those who have been impacted by the archbishop’s ministry are taking a chance to reflect on his leadership over the past decade and a half.

“You have loved us with a shepherd’s direction and a pastor’s heart,” said Dr. Cepelka in her toast. “In your unrelenting way, you’ve been at home in churches, school gyms, boardrooms, public venues, recording studios and at the bedsides of the sick and the dying. Your visionary leadership has stabilized our structures, expanded our seminary, strengthened Catholic Charities, paved the right path forward for our schools — especially through the establishment of networks such as Seton and Siena — and never let us forget the meaning of our experiences, the ‘why’ of our own privileged work for God.”

“I feel so blessed to have had Archbishop Listecki as our shepherd for the past 14 years,” said Fr. Jordan Berghouse, pastor of St. Therese Parish in Eagle and St. James Parish in Mukwonago. “As a priest who has promised obedience to him, I would follow him with unreserved confidence into battle.”

Fr. Berghouse highlighted Archbishop Listecki’s “commitment to Catholic education” as one of his defining qualities. “He has helped to show us that the most effective way to evangelize in today’s society can and should be through the gift of Catholic education. He has been incredibly supportive of us at St. James the Less in Mukwonago as we have sought to heed that call by re-opening our parish school. With his support, and the vigorous commitment of the parishioners of St. James, we will be reopening our doors in the fall.”

And that support goes far beyond pastoral initiatives, Fr. Berghouse said, sharing how the archbishop tended to his own family during a recent health crisis.

When Fr. Berghouse’s father was scheduled for emergency surgery, “I texted the archbishop at 5:30 a.m. to ask for his prayers,” he said. “He responded right away. And then he stopped by the hospital while my dad was in surgery. He brought candy for my little sisters and holy oil of St. Walburga. Then he gathered us together and led us in a prayer.”

That gesture, said Fr. Berghouse, “reminded me that the archbishop, beneath all of his duties, tasks, responsibilities and burdens, has the true heart of a pastor.”

“I will never forget that he took the time to console us and pray with us,” he said. “We have been blessed with an incredible shepherd.”

“My entire adult life as a Catholic has unfolded under the steadfast leadership of Archbishop Listecki,” said Fr. John LoCoco, Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. “I will always be grateful for his faithful guidance as our bishop and shepherd. Being ordained by the archbishop, placing my hands in his and promising obedience, fills me with even deeper gratitude for having served as his priest.”

Fr. LoCoco described the archbishop as a “priest’s priest” at heart, even despite having “extensive degrees and experiences — studying in Rome, teaching in seminary, serving in the Armed Forces, and studying both civil and canon law.”

“St. John Vianney described the priesthood as the love of Jesus’ heart, and in knowing the archbishop, I’ve never doubted his love for Christ,” said Fr. LoCoco.

One of Fr. LoCoco’s most cherished memories of the archbishop is from last year’s Good Friday liturgy at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in downtown Milwaukee — “witnessing my shepherd and bishop, with unwavering resolve, kneel and then fully prostrate himself in the center of the Cathedral.”

“Having assumed the same position only six years prior at my own ordination, seeing my shepherd do the same, but with the weight of greater responsibility, humbly lying prone on the marble floor, deeply moved me,” said Fr. LoCoco. “In the future, when I am asked about the one who ordained me and what he was like, I can truly say, ‘He loved the Lord.’”

Fr. Luke Strand, Rector of Saint Francis de Sales Seminary, described the archbishop as “a man without duplicity. He is honest and straightforward.”

It’s a trait that often comes out when he’s watching sports, added Fr. Strand.

“He loves basketball. When watching a game with him, he is always offering commentary. And if he doesn’t like a call, he will let the referees know it.”

That’s all part and parcel of his tendency to “see the bigger picture.”

“He has the faith to realize that God often plays the long game,” said Fr. Strand. “He works hard and expects you to do the same.”

Former WISN news anchor Portia Young has worked alongside the archbishop for years supporting Catholic education throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. She recalls the first interaction the two of them had — at a Catholic Schools Dinner when Young was pregnant.

“That was the first time we kind of did a show together, and I remember him saying, ‘She’s got one on the way — that one’s ours.’ And he meant, that one’s going to go to Catholic school as well. And I said, ‘You got it, archbishop. Hear it loud and clear.’ That became a great relationship.”

Young later served on the Board of Directors for the Seton Catholic Schools network, an initiative the archbishop saw as crucial for the survival of Catholic schools in urban Milwaukee.

“He always came back to: We are failing our kids if we don’t do something. And he was adamant about that. He spoke passionately about that,” said Young. “I remember — you know, he has that booming voice — and he would say, ‘We are here to have Catholic-educated students, not just to have great schools. We’re here to have Catholic education.’”

The archbishop is not a man afraid to say what he thinks is best for his flock, said Randy Nohl.

“Archbishop Listecki had not been in Milwaukee very long when he began talking about wanting to have a synod to help set the direction for the archdiocese for the next 10 years or so,” recalled Nohl, who at the time was the director of the John Paul II Center. Nohl and Rich Harter, then Director of Evangelization, were called upon to head up the synod efforts.

“Many people, myself included, wondered if this was the best time to be calling for a synod as the diocese was facing the possibility of bankruptcy,” said Nohl. “We obviously went forward with the synod, and Archbishop Listecki was right — the synod energized people and clearly gave the message that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and Catholicism in southeastern Wisconsin was very much alive even in the midst of bankruptcy. The synod took place because of Archbishop Listecki’s leadership and vision.”

Michael Tennies has known the archbishop for the majority of his life, having been involved in the Knights of Columbus since a young age. One of Tennies’ earliest memories of the archbishop is at a yard party at the archbishop’s residence, shortly after he came to Milwaukee. Tennies, just 12 years old at the time, attended with his parents.

“Only just recently, my parents shared with me what Archbishop Listecki discussed with them at this event,” said Tennies. “At the time, the seminary staff was at their wits’ end dealing with my outbursts of energy at the seminary camp outs over the past couple years, as I was climbing trees, making bird calls, the like. The archbishop was certainly aware of these antics and shared with my parents what were received as stern words of wisdom: ‘Your son has a lot of energy. Can you help me channel his energy into something worthwhile, like serving the Church?’”

Tennies would go on to serve as a state officer, state vocations director and Archdiocese of Milwaukee outreach director in the Knights of Columbus, in addition to founding the JP2 Men’s Group.

“These many years later, I am humbled to be living a life of service in the ways I am able, thanks to both the archbishop and my parents holding up their ends of the bargain, supporting me along the way,” said Tennies. “Moral of the story, and this take away from the archbishop: Whatever crosses you bear, channel it into a life in Christ.”

Jenni Oliva, Director of Archdiocesan Events and Special Projects, has worked closely with the archbishop since he first came to Milwaukee. “I could talk about so many different work-related events and projects over the years: the annual Respect Life Mass, marriage preparation conferences, the marriage jubilee celebrations, Retro Night, all the events we did for the 175th anniversary (of the archdiocese), traveling to Washington, D.C., for the annual March for Life, going on pilgrimage to Greece and Turkey,” she said.

But when she reflects on the archbishop’s impact on her, she thinks of several “very important personal events in my life.”

“Archbishop Listecki offered the nuptial blessing during our wedding Mass. He anointed my mom a few days before she died. He visited my dad in the hospital when he was recovering from major heart and lung surgery and came to pay his respects at my dad’s funeral visitation about six months later. He prayed with my family at my mother-in-law’s funeral visitation. He anointed me twice before some scary surgeries,” said Oliva. “He has cared about my life, my work and my family. It has been a pleasure to not only work with and for the archbishop but also to have him so involved in my life.”

Krys Crawley has also witnessed the archbishop’s willingness to respond quickly to members of his flock who are in need. The executive director of Life’s Connection in Mukwonago and Waukesha, Crawley works every day with mothers and families in crisis — those who are considering abortion, those who are in need of pregnancy support, and those who are simply in need of someone to walk alongside them on the rough road of parenting.

Lately, Crawley had been encountering many families who were experiencing miscarriages and desperate for resources. One night in 2015, after a particularly intense week, Crawley “just couldn’t sleep. I’m like, we have to do something as a Catholic Church.” She got out of bed and, at 2 a.m., emailed Archbishop Listecki. “It took me about two minutes to type an email that was, like, this long,” she said, indicating a long block of text with her hands. “I woke up early the next morning and opened my computer, and I had gotten an email back from the archbishop. He said, ‘Krys, I am 100 percent in agreement with what you’re saying.’” He put her in touch with an archdiocesan expert on bioethics, and Crawley was able to establish Life’s Connection as a sacred holding site for the remains of miscarried babies whose families wished to provide them with burial.

“Archbishop’s immediate responsiveness, his care for the situation, his recognition of what this issue meant to the families experiencing loss, as well as his fierce pro-life heart, means everything to me,” said Crawley. “God has and continues to do great work through him. I will forever be grateful for responding to my email and guidance, because in doing so he is changing the world for families facing the loss of their precious little babies. Every soul has a mission and God is using archbishop in big ways. We have been especially blessed to have had his leadership for all these years.”

Penny Listecki knows the archbishop in a way that many others don’t. She sees the good shepherd, but she also sees the protective older brother.

“He’s always looked out for me,” she said recently while being interviewed about her brother’s legacy. “Even if I was the nasty one, he would always say to my mother and father, ‘Oh, don’t punish her please, Ma, don’t punish her.’”

When asked how she would describe her older brother to someone who did not know him, Listecki said that “he’s very compassionate, really sincere with people, and I would also say that he’s loving.”

“People (are drawn) to him,” she said.

She related a story from when she went to Leon’s Custard with her brother. A woman in line recognized the archbishop and gave him a hug.

“She said, ‘I don’t know you, but I listen to you on radio and I once saw you on TV.’ And she said, ‘I just love you and I’m not even Catholic,’” said Listecki. “It’s kind of nice to know that he’s very much respected in this area and liked.”

She recalled one time that she went to visit the archbishop when he was studying in Rome. “It was an exciting time because I’ve never been out of the country. But the most exciting thing is as a Christmas present, he got me tickets to receive Communion from the Pope (at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve). And that was the best Christmas present he ever, ever, ever gave me. And it was JPII, so I was ecstatic. My heart still sings from it today.”

During his time here in Milwaukee, Penny Listecki said that her brother, “put his heart and soul into it.”

“He gave it his heart and soul, and I hope people remember him for his kindness, for his pastoral (abilities). When people call, he picks up the phone. I’ll never forget the first time he picked up the phone over here (at his residence) and somebody couldn’t believe that the archbishop was answering his own phone. He’s very much out there for the people, for his flock. He’s very much for them.”

For all his accomplishments, his degrees and his professional experience, Archbishop Listecki could well put himself on a pedestal, his sister said — but he never does.

“I just want everybody to know that there’s not anyone that can come up to him and he won’t talk to them, he won’t smile with them, he’ll give a conversation,” she said. “He never sits on that pedestal.”